Signs You’re Knee-Deep in Dogma and How to Check Yourself

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Everyone is dogmatic in some sense of the word.

Everyone believes something to be true, and everyone has their own preconceived viewpoint on any given topic. This isn’t inherently problematic, as it is impossible to have an entirely open mind that graciously accepts all sides of an arguement.

However, it is a problem when you will defend your beliefs despite mountains of conflicting evidence, and you will even resort to attacking others who don’t share your precious ideals. Civil debate is where the most learning occurs, and if you’re unwilling to put your viewpoints under the scrutiny of others, you will never grow as a critical thinker, and you will be unable to expand your knowledge of the topic at hand.

Of course, the focus of this post is going to be on the nutrition and fitness side of things, but it can undoubtedly apply to other controversial topics as well. It just so happens that the fitness industry is a breeding ground for pseudo-scientific drivel and closed-minded gurus looking to expand their pocketbooks. If you’ve ever attempted to challenge a “well-respected” and “popular” authority figure, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

It’s crucial to check yourself. I do my best to remain open to most points of view, but there are times when I catch myself drifting a bit off track. We’re all human. But in order to grow and improve your knowledge base, you must be able to support your beliefs with scientific evidence and you must be able to withstand opposing viewpoints. If your beliefs are going unchallenged, you’re promoting a cult, not a community (like this individual).

Below I’ve summed up some obvious (or maybe not…) signs of dogmatic and closed-minded thinking, and at the end, I will briefly discuss ways to promote open-mindedness and how to avoid becoming cynical in an industry where sensationalism and dogma are often encouraged.

1. You Ignore or Shun Opposing Viewpoints

I don’t want everyone to agree with me.

In fact, I’ll go as far as saying I hope a lot of people disagree and express their opposing views. It’s not that I’m intentionally controversial, but as I mentioned above, civil debate is the best way to learn. Not only do the people interacting directly benefit, but so do those who are watching the debate from afar.

The shunning of debate seems to be overwhelmingly common in the brash world of social media. If you say (or Tweet, or post, or share) something that is incorrect, you damn well be ready to step up to the plate and defend your views with objective evidence. Too often I come across individuals who get defensive when their beliefs are challenged, labeling anyone who disagrees with them a “hater”. I “hate” that term, as it is essentially a cop out. You don’t want to discuss the evidence and open up the possibility that you’re wrong, so you attack anyone who challenges you. Again, this a tell-tale sign of someone who is not open to dissenting opinions and would rather continue swimming in their sea of confirmation bias. If you misinterpret someone challenging misinformation as “hating” or “being negative”, you need to check yourself. Blatant misinformation cannot go unchallenged.

Science is constantly evolving. If you’re not rolling with the punches and changing your views based upon emerging evidence, you will be left behind. Accept opposing viewpoints, admit you’re wrong, and continue learning. Don’t be stuck in your ways. It is damaging to you and those who value your advice.

2. You Find Yourself Preaching to Others

It’s comforting to associate with a belief system, to identify with a certain ideology. This is not necessarily a bad thing, except when you begin to extrapolate your experience onto others. Understand this: outside of internet fantasy land, most people don’t give a shit what diet you’re on. No one cares about your elitist attitude and your fight against Big Pharma or the USDA. No one cares if you haven’t had a carb since 2004.

Look, it’s perfectly fine to give someone advice if they ask for it. But nothing is worse than someone forcefully shoving their lifestyle philosophies down your throat. Keep your cherished ideologies to yourself.

As someone who is thoroughly obsessed with the topic of nutrition, it can be difficult to not talk about it every chance I get. I just have to remind myself: you know what, most people don’t care about the intricacies of fat metabolism or whether or not they should consume carbohydrates in their post workout meal.

Don’t preach at people. To be clear, I’m not innocent in this regard. When I was full-blown Paleo a few years ago, I would preach the holy gospel to anyone who was brave enough to eat bread in my presence. Oh how I wish I could go back in time and give myself a nice kick in the ass.

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3. You’re Overly Sensational With Your Interactions and Claims

“Sugar is toxic.”

“Carbohydrates are killing your brain.”

“Fructose is ethanol without the buzz.”

This kind of sensationalism and fear-mongering is commonplace nowadays, and it’s quite frustrating to watch as smart individuals get sucked in by the clever, emotion-invoking marketing ploys. The problem is that these claims are hardly ever rooted in evidence and they tend to take a one-size-fits-all approach.

I’ve written a post on how to avoid sensationalism in the fitness industry, check it out here.

In summary, if you find yourself being an alarmist and using words such as ‘toxic’ and ‘evil’ and ‘devil’ while completely ignoring context and evidence to the contrary, you need to do some self-evaluation. Or not. I mean, if you want a book deal and a massive, blind following, continue on with the unsubstantiated sensationalism. But, if you like to maintain integrity and base your claims on the best available evidence, you might want to tone down the ridiculous assertions. All they do is scare people, making them think twice every single bite of food that passes their lips.

I’ll end this section with a quote from Dr. David Katz, taken from his article on the recent hysteria surrounding saturated fat:

If we focus only on cutting saturated fat, we can find new ways to eat badly. We have, over the years, done exactly that. Of note, we can do the same when cutting carbs, or gluten, or fructose, or sugar, or meat, or grains, or salt, or wheat, too. Diet never was, and never will be, a single ingredient enterprise. The whole recipe matters.

Most of the sensational ideas in nutrition today place blame on one factor. But, as Dr. Katz states above, “the whole recipe matters”.

4. You Find Yourself Promoting Over Providing Value

Everyone needs to make money.

However, there is a problem when the promotions outweigh the value you provide. There are several individuals in the health niche that are just trying to get over on people; and unfortunately, it’s working. As someone who has been thoroughly duped by marketing ploys in the past, I know what it’s like to be scammed and left believing something that is patently false.

The point is: always provide value, even through your promotions. As you can see on the side bar to the right, I have banners of a few products that have proven very useful to me and thousands of others. I wouldn’t promote these products if I didn’t believe in them with 100% certainty. Too often I come across “experts” who endorse products or services that they have never used or benefited from themselves, and I think that is misleading to those who trust their opinion.

Long story short, just put out good information. Whether it is free or has a price tag, make sure what you’re providing is helpful in some way, shape, or form. Your conscience will thank you.

5. You Only Accept Science When it Meshes With Your Beliefs

It’s always entertaining to watch someone wank on about how science is flawed and rife with bias and cheating, only to see them turn into a selective PubMed ninja when one of their beliefs are challenged or criticized.

You cannot have it one way or the other.

Either evaluate the science that confirms and opposes your beliefs on a given topic and make a decision, or ignore it all together and just make shit up as you go. You can’t pick and choose which research you want to believe and toss out the rest. Sorry, it just doesn’t work that way.

6. You Overreact to One Article/Paper/Study

“ZOMG saturated fat isn’t evil! That one science dude said so! Time to put butter on everything yay!”

“Sugar is addictive, that new rat study proves it! I was right all along!”

“Told you oreos are like cocaine!”

The problem is that the above exclamations are synonymous with what has been happening in the world of nutrition over the past few weeks: a great, big overreaction.

Taking one new study or paper and using it to say “I told you so” is silly. The great thing about science is that, on most topics, there is a huge body of research to evaluate.  Obviously I’m not saying that we shouldn’t value emerging research. Just that we need to take the new research and stack it up against the overwhelming body of evidence that is already at our disposal. A new study doesn’t automatically negate all of the opposing research that was published further back in time.

How to Check Yourself

Doing some self-evaluation every now and then can be very helpful in achieving an objective mindset. As I said earlier, it is impossible to accept every side of an argument, but we can do our best to avoid becoming cynical.

1. Believe the Facts, Not the Individuals Stating Them

Credentials can be important, but they should not be used to put someone and their information on a pedestal. The best researchers, doctors, nutritionists, and coaches will make it known that they are open to being wrong and learning from their mistakes. But, it is damaging when those in a position of authority are permitted to rampantly spread misinformation under the guise of credibility. These people need to be checked as well. Judge someone’s credibility by the validity of the information they provide, not by the letters after their name.

For more commentary on paper credentials as they apply to the fitness industry, check out Alan Aragon’s excellent article here.

To summarize: it can be helpful to identify a few authorities in the industry that you trust, but it’s crucial to put their arguments under as much evaluation as anyone else’s. Even the best of the best slip up from time to time, so it’s important to not just take someone’s word for anything.

2. Be Open to Debate

As I alluded to earlier, those who consider the challenging of misinformation “hating” need to wake up and understand that the most learning occurs when you have to defend your stance against opposing viewpoints. And, if you end up being wrong, that’s great! Use it as an opportunity to learn and expand your knowledge on that particular topic.

Me personally, if I start spouting off nonsense, I want to be called out on it. That way I can figure out why what I was saying is wrong, and learn and grow from there.

Debates and challenges should be embraced.

3. Seek Out Opposing Viewpoints

Instead of waiting for them to come to you, seek out those who hold a different stance than your own and converse with them, if they are willing, of course.

This is a great way to avoid becoming one dimensional on a particular topic. For example, I don’t consider myself a Paleo guy, but I know many people who support the Paleo philosophy, and I talk with them frequently, whether it is to get their opinion on a certain topic or to debate something controversial. On the flip side, Paleo Movement‘s Karen Pendergrass has been doing an excellent job seeking out those who oppose some of the ideas that Paleo puts forth and interviewing them on the site (here and here). It is this kind of open mindedness that allows us to progress and continue learning, even from those who don’t share the same views.

Wrap Up

Acknowledge opposing viewpoints, be open to debate and criticism, and keep learning.

Just know that this post wasn’t meant to be preachy or condescending. I wrote this to keep myself in check as well.

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